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Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – Review
Dystopian stories have a long tradition in science fiction. Dystopian stories for younger readers have been around even longer than that. A younger, more open mind is more willing to consider the ideas that would bring about the problems that lead to the bleak future an author has imagined and, hopefully, make them more aware of what they can do to prevent it from happening. YA books are tackling more and more sophisticated subject matter all the time, which makes me feel more hopeful than ever for our future.
Article 5 is set in an unspecified near future. The United States as we know it has fallen. The major cities have been abandoned. The country is run by a highly conservative regime that has completely disregarded the Bill of Rights and has dismantled the American system of government so that it instead supports the Moral Statutes. It’s every bit as bad as it sounds. The Moral Statutes are enforced by an army comprised of young men recruited as teenagers and brainwashed into believing that the Moral Statutes are going to save society.
Ember Miller is good at blending in. Her mother, however, is not. They both remember a time before the Moral Statutes were in place and, while Ember just wants to go on with her life and pretend like everything is fine, her mother longs for the time before. In Simmons’ vision of the world post-war, romance novels and magazines are contraband, the government keeps people jobless to make them dependent upon a welfare state for food and shelter while maintaining iron-fisted control over the economy, such as it is. Unannounced inspections of homes to ensure compliance with the Moral Statutes are a matter of course. People disappear all of the time.
Article 5 opens with Ember coming home to find her home being raided. She and her mother are arrested because Ember was born out of wedlock, and Article 5, which declares this illegal, has been made retroactive. Ember’s mother is arrested and carted away in a government van. Ember herself is sent to a reform school run by the Sisters of Mercy, an order with a name that seems far more like an obvious, sarcastic joke than it probably should. One of the arresting officers is Chase Jennings, a boy who used to live next door to the Millers, whom Ember was dating until he went away to become a soldier.
Simmons does state that there was a war and nearly every major city in the U.S. has been destroyed. There aren’t details about the war. The readers of Article 5 are not clued in to how the war started or why, how long it lasted, or who the person or faction running the country actually are or how they managed to wrest power from the government. It’s made obvious that the U.S. has become a police state, ruled by fear and intimidation. That might frustrate readers who are thirsty for details, but it makes sense in the context of Ember’s perspective.
Ember is a seventeen-year-old girl. She misses the way the world used to work before the war, but she has become complacent to the way that things are currently in her life. It is the way that it is, and so long as you play by the rules, you don’t have to worry about what will happen to you. What she doesn’t understand, of course, is how arbitrarily the rules will shift around her and how that will impact her life. At the beginning of the book, Ember seems more mature than her peers. She frets over her mother, who flaunts her disregard of the Moral Statutes by reading romance novels out on the front porch, where anyone might see her and report it.
Ember’s mother is portrayed as a bit of a flake. She doesn’t have the spine to confront a wholly unsuitable boyfriend, instead leaving it to her daughter to throw him out of the house. She doesn’t worry about having books and magazines deemed obscene lying around the house, where anyone might see them, especially soldiers doing an inspection, and she acts as if by simply willing things to get better that they will. She’s not an unlikable character, she’s just not really shown to be the most capable parent.
Then, there’s Chase Jennings. He’s a year older than Ember. Chase’s family is gone, and he had fallen in with the Millers. He and Ember fell in love and, when it came time for Chase to enlist, he did. Chase’s time as a soldier has left him scarred both physically and emotionally. He’s unhappy serving in the military and, when he has to arrest Ember and send her to reform school, he promptly makes the decision to go AWOL, a crime punishable by death.
Most of Article 5 is about Ember and Chase fleeing in an attempt to find safety. During their journey, Ember devolves a little. She wants to fight, she wants to rebel against the unfairness of the Moral Statutes. She is still only seventeen, and she’s scared. What little faith she had in the system has been destroyed. Her eyes are opened further through talks with Chase and by what she sees as they try to reach a safe house. There are moments of immaturity, mostly brought on by misunderstandings of Chase and his motivations for helping her. The country is in ruin around both of them, and, while Ember begins to grasp that, she has no idea what to do about any of it. Her goal is to find her mother and to help her, because she knows her mother can’t do well in prison.
Ember Miller is young. If a reader can keep that in mind, that they’re reading about a teenager rather than an adult, Article 5 seems far more plausible as a story. Of course she makes some bad decisions. She’s seventeen years old, and she does things that don’t seem rational. On the other hand, Ember is trying to figure out not only herself but also what is happening around her, what is going on with Chase, and what, if anything, she can do about it. She’s not a whiny, spoiled, selfish child. She’s a scared and frustrated teenager who recognizes that she is in a terrible situation beyond anything she could have ever expected to deal with. She’s a good character and, I hope, readers will get to see her grow in the next book in the series.